Talking Points: William Jelani Cobb on the Sean Delonas Political Cartoon
Dr. William Jelani Cobb
When I looked at it, there was no getting around the implications of it. Clearly anyone with an iota of sense knows the close association of black people and the primate imagery.
–Professor Jelani Cobb, Spelman College, History Department (as quoted on CNN.com)
The simple wisdom of Cobb’s statement cuts through the debate around the New York Post cartoon and delivers to the place where the conversation should focus. Delonas and his editor(s) knew that this cartoon would likely be perceived by many as a distasteful and thoroughly bigoted. It is but another instance of a sophomoric and hackneyed ritual that takes place several times a year, often on college campuses. In this ritual, non-Black writers and/or editors use racially charged language and imagery to make what they later claim was a satirical or parodic comment on race. When called to task for their perpetuation of racist images, ideas, and/or stereotypes the writers and publishers then label their Black and non-Black critics as oversensitive, unable to understand satire, or “politically correct” to a fault.
A similar incident took placet earlier during this school year, when students from the Princeton Theological Seminary published a “newsletter” that included statements that many readers experienced as a racist attack on the school’s sole Black woman faculty member. (You can read about it HERE). Predictably, the defenders of that magazine accused their detractors of failing to understand satire, of being oversensitive, and of not having a sense of humor. A particularly appalling example of this phenomenon took place a couple years ago at Tufts University, when a conservative magazine published a racist “carol” — to be sung to the tune of “O Come All Ye Faithful” — that was later described by the publishers as a critque of affirmative action. (You can read about the Tufts incident HERE).
These types of incidents generally occur when the creators of such material feel the need for a “market correction,” so to speak, in the area of race. A Black faculty member appears to be too visible/successful/influential, Black students are experienced by certain of their non-Black classmates as threateningly vocal and (to borrow a term from Vice President Joe Biden) disconcertingly articulate; or (as in the case of the Sean Delonas cartoon) a Black man’s landslide election to the U.S. presidency is followed by an important victory in the House and Senate for one of his key policies.
In other words, the stock of Black Americans gets a little too high, and certain writers and cartoonists seek to lower the value of that stock by reminding everyone that, fundamentally, Black students are all just affirmative action cases, imported from the “ghetto” (in the case of a racist publication at Tufts University); or just tokens on the faculty (in the case of the Princeton Theological Seminary). In the case of the Sean Delonas cartoon, the take home message is that no matter how intelligent and effective the new president may seem to be, in the end, he’s just another monkey-fied coon.
The problem for the Sean Delonases and New York Posts of the world — and for all of those writers who continue to engage in artistic and editorial race-baiting — is that the proportion of non-Black people who see Black people primarily in terms of these age-old stereotypes is quickly shrinking. After all, Americans knew the stereotypes associated with Black people and they voted a Black man into office anyway. I suspect that I am not the only person who fully expected Obama’s detractors to engage in exactly the type of thinly veiled racism that we see in the Delonas cartoon. Indeed, I expected my more of it, and a lot sooner. The reliance on such old and predictable racist images and stereotypes is an indication of the cartoonist’s failure to find any substantive points on which to build a critique.
Biographical Notes: William Jelani Cobb is Associate Professor of History at Spelman College. He is a graduate of Howard University (BA) and Rutgers (PhD). Professor Cobb is the author of two books, Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic and The Devil & Dave Chappelle and Other Essays.
Posted by Ajuan Mance